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The Globe and Mail

Woman stranded for 49 days comes home to Canada

Canadian couple Albert and Rita Chretien are seen in this Royal Canadian Mounted Police photo released to Reuters on May 7, 2011.


A British Columbia woman who spent 49 days stranded in a van in the Nevada wilderness has been moved from a hospital in Idaho to one in Canada, while searchers looking for her missing husband were stymied by foul weather Tuesday.

Doctors upgraded the condition of Rita Chretien, 56, from fair to good Tuesday and, in the evening, officials at St. Luke's Magic Valley hospital announced she had been discharged and taken to a facility in British Columbia. While they would not say exactly what remained to be done, "good" is the best possible condition and typically indicates a patient will soon be allowed to return home.

"Her spirits are high," said Ken Dey, a spokesman for St. Luke's Magic Valley hospital in Idaho. "The medical team is watching her closely but indicators of her recovery are very good."

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Ms. Chretien was found weak and emaciated, but the medical team treating her said she started eating solid foods including a salmon dinner Monday night and a burrito and coffee for breakfast on Tuesday. She survived over the weeks by rationing trail mix and fish-oil pills and drinking melted snow.

She and her husband, 59-year-old Albert Chretien, were heading to Las Vegas on a business trip in mid-March when they made several wrong turns and got stuck on a muddy mountain road near the Nevada-Idaho state line. Mr. Chretien set off on foot to get help in the Nevada wilderness shortly after and has not been seen since.

Snow, gusty winds and rain on Tuesday prevented searchers from continuing to comb the rugged terrain for the man. A team of about 30 people using horses and all-terrain vehicles had been scouring the backwoods of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

"It's very rugged," said Lesli Ellis, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman. "We're hoping for the best. There are areas of shelter up there."

A note written by Ms. Chretien suggests her husband was aiming for Mountain City, 26 kilometres from the Idaho border. After days passed without help arriving, Ms. Chretien wrote in the note found in the van that he might have died along the way.

"I'm a bit too realistic, a lot of people are saying maybe it's another miracle, but I know a shell of a vehicle is an amazing thing to protect you compared to being without it," said Penticton resident Tony Friesen, who has known Mr. Chretien since they built a Christian school together as volunteers four years ago.

Mr. Friesen said his friend is a father of three and grandfather of at least five youngsters, and is devoted to his family. When the couple first vanished, Mr. Friesen jumped on his motorbike and spent a week searching the area around Baker City, Ore., where the Chretiens were last spotted buying snacks at a gas station.

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He came home disappointed and with more questions than answers, certain he'd turned over every leaf. He described the area where the van was found as in between grasslands and a mesh of ravines and valleys that gets snow showers because of its high altitude.

From his own experience as an adventurer-motorbiker, he noted roads sometimes look more substantial on GPS than they really are. The Chretiens had only recently purchased the device they were using on the trip, he said.

Despite the grim possibilities, Mr. Friesen said he isn't surprised Mr. Chretien tried to get them out of their fix.

"He's a small guy, but he's got a good strong fibre in him," he said. "You don't commit yourself to walking if you haven't tried everything else."

RCMP and U.S. authorities conducted a search, including setting up a telephone tip line, after the couple were first reported missing. Much of that search focused on the area around where they were last seen, hundreds of kilometres north of where the van was located.

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